Israel, Lebanon and the Fight for Fossil Fuels

The prolonged and increasingly menacing dispute over eastern Mediterranean oil and gas reserves is not going to start a war between Israel and Lebanon. The stakes are far higher than that.

Many have somewhat predictably come to the opposite conclusion; that the two long-time enemies, each of whom continually talk a good fight, will eventually come to blows for fossil fuel because the continued potential for war makes it inevitable. Under normal circumstances, that would be difficult to argue with. But these are far from normal circumstances.

The dispute dates back to 2007, when Lebanon and Cyprus agreed to a preliminary maritime border. Then, two years later, a consortium of U.S. and Israeli companies discovered the Tamar gas field 90 kilometers off the coast of Haifa. In early 2010, the Leviathan gas field was discovered. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the eastern Mediterranean basin could hold up to 1.7 billion barrels of oil and 34.5 trillion cubic meters of gas which, if it sounds like a lot, that's because it is. We are talking serious potential future revenue here.

Israel has, due to U.S. commercial support, gotten a significant jump-start on Lebanon, including setting up a series of exploration blocks scattered throughout a 9,600 square kilometer section of seabed. Lebanon moved in October to submit a unilateral proposal for the boundary of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), but this was after Israel had been studying the viability of extracting deep-sea riches for a number of years.

Israel went to the United Nations in July with its version of a maritime boundary. The principal point of contention is an 854 sq km slither that both Lebanon and Israel lay claim to. If that sounds a rather meager strip of territory, that's because it is.

The governments of Israel and Lebanon are rarely short of sources of disagreement. The atrocities visited on much of Lebanon during the 1978 and 1982 invasions, as well as the devastating 2006 War, in addition to the hundreds of Israeli lives lost in all conflicts, do not make for much common ground.

In the course of history, have wars started over financial or energy prerogatives? Sure. But have alliances been hastily arranged for the same mutual benefit? Absolutely. Both Lebanon and Israel would do well, temporarily, to put their intractable differences aside and grasp the historic opportunity to change the face of their countries for the better. Of course, this is probably not going to happen.

Lebanon has always relied on energy imports. It's a dirty country, environmentally speaking, with coal and oil-fired power stations burning up the fossil fuels that get delivered. The thing is, these are insufficient. There is, as evidenced by roving blackouts which range from three hours a day in the city to 10 or more hours a day in remote areas, not enough electricity to go around. The only recently formed government is currently on the brink of collapse due to debate swirling over -- you guessed it -- an energy bill.

Israel has a similar reliance on external energy, but it can no longer rely on imports in the traditional sense, given the situation in Egypt post Hosni Mubarak. Attacks on the principal gas pipeline from Egypt to southern Israel demonstrate that, in the face of a rapidly changing region, Israel cannot afford to take Middle Eastern energy imports as a given.

So the benefit of reaching an agreement over a shared maritime border is huge. That doesn't mean it'll happen.

From the Lebanese perspective, every single millimeter of what it claims is its own sovereign territory appropriated by Israel brings back memories of aforementioned invasions. Israel still occupies pockets of what is Lebanese land, in northern Ghajar and the Shebaa Farms region. Not only does this keep Lebanon rightfully antipathetic towards Israel, it continues (in the minds of many) to legitimize the existence of a resistance movement, Hezbollah.

In recent Cabinets, the Lebanese Foreign Ministry has been the preserve of Shiite politicians who, given their participation in a parliamentary bloc driven by Hezbollah, continue to refuse to countenance any sort of compromise when Israel is involved.

Israel, as history has shown, is not averse to illegally laying claim to what it doesn't own and, even if this time proves different to previous instances, its government rarely misses an opportunity to wind up Lebanon.

Western diplomats say that the U.N., which already monitors one 'border' between the warring states, is ready to step in and mediate the demarcation of a maritime boundary. It has the capability, in the form of its Maritime Task Force, to avoid confrontation along a given line, even if that means the slither of disputed territory goes untapped for the time being.

Both Israel and Lebanon badly need the revenue anything approaching an agreement over maritime borders would bring. It is to their mutual detriment that they so far they haven't even been able to agree to disagree.